5 Elements of a Resonant Closing Line

As important as the opening line may be to convincing someone to read your book, the closing line is the one that determines how well your story works—and whether or not your reader will find your story a satisfying experience. Last month, we talked about the 5 Elements of a Riveting First Line, and today we’re going to bring the discussion full circle by exploring the five elements that will help you craft the kind of closing line that caps your entire story and leaves readers with a feeling of unforgettable resonance.

Like first lines, last lines, in themselves, aren’t all that memorable. In fact, I’ll bet you this week’s serving of carrots that you can’t remember the closing lines of the last five books you enjoyed. The memorability of the lines themselves isn’t nearly as important as the memorability of the feeling with which they leave your readers. Let’s take a look at the closing lines of five of my favorite books:

“Hooker yet upon the Rappahannock,” he said. “We must have him across the Potomac, and we must ourselves invade Pennsylvania.”—The Long Roll by Mary Johnston

Vin closed her eyes, simply feeling the warmth of being held. And realized that was all she had ever really wanted.—Mistborn: The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson

“Why, sir,” said the hall-porter, smiling at him, “never fret yourself about haste post-haste: here is Sir Joseph himself, coming up the steps, a-leaning on Colonel Warren’s arm.”—The Reverse of the Medal by Patrick O’Brian

And after that it sometimes almost seemed as if there were fewer enemy planes in the skies.—After Dunkirk by Milena McGraw

He looked a long time.—Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card

What is it about these lines that made these stories resonate with me? How did they embed these stories in my mind and help me carry them with me long after I closed the back covers? Let’s take a look at a couple of factors.

5 Steps to a Resonant Closing Line Infographic

(Featured in the Structuring Your Novel Workbook.)

1. Summation

The end of the book marks the end (didn’t see that coming, did you?), even if it’s part of a series—as are all the books I’ve listed except After Dunkirk. The closing line should give readers a sense of finality, a sense that the main issues of the plot have been taken care of and that he can safely leave the characters without worrying that anything more momentous is going to strike. In the examples above, we find Mistborn’s main character discovering safety and love in a relationship, the thwarting of an enemy plot by the arrival of a spymaster in Reverse of the Medal, and the beginning of the end of the Battle of Britain in After Dunkirk.

2. Theme

At its heart, story is theme. We dress it up with plot and characters, but the theme is what the story is about. So it’s only appropriate we strike a final emotional note in our last sentence. Although not necessarily evident out of context, the books above use their final lines to reinforce their themes of war, love, trust, hope, and redemption.

3. Pacing

The final line—and the lines building up to it—should provide the appropriate pacing to guide readers to an instinctual understanding of the coming end. Just as a song builds to a climax and then tapers into the subsequent notes to ease listeners back into silence, the end of a story must slow its pacing to ease readers out of the story back into their comfy La-Z-Boys. The lines listed above vary in length, but most of them are punchy sentences—which were preceded by longer, lyrical, sometimes almost dreamy paragraphs, which the authors used to ease back from the action of the story, so they could hammer home one final thought before releasing the reader.

4. Farewell

Not all closing lines will feature the main character. Sometimes authors will utilize a “pulling back” of the camera to show the reader a broad view of the story, rather than a close up of the protagonist. However, most often, the closing line is the last chance to say goodbye to the characters for both the author and the reader. The Long Roll, Mistborn, and Ender’s Game all feature the protagonist in the final sentence. After Dunkirk, which is narrated in the first person by the protagonist, offers the main character’s final thoughts to the reader. And Reverse of the Medal’s comparatively abrupt ending features a line of dialogue that the reader already knows the main character is desperately awaiting.

5. Continuation

Finally—and a bit contradictorily—the closing line should also indicate that the story isn’t over, that, in fact, the lives of the surviving main characters will continue long after the reader closes the back cover. In Worlds of Wonder, David Gerrold points out, “A great last line should leave your reader satisfied that you have said everything that needs to be said—and at the same time, it should stand as a launch pad for the reader’s imagination to leap off into its own flight of fantasy about what happens next.” The Long Roll leaves us looking into the future, toward the inevitable Battle of Gettysburg. Mistborn assures us the main character will be moving forward in a healthy relationship. Reverse of the Medal ties up its plot’s loose threads and sends us hurtling into the sequel. After Dunkirk’s weary hope promises the eventual end of war. And Ender’s Game’s nebulous (and brilliant) final line indicates both a present incompletion (and thus a sense of continuation) and an eventual finality at the end of the long search.

Your ending line will depend greatly on the story that precedes it: its tone, pacing, and the mood you want to strike with its ending. But if you can incorporate all or most of these elements into your final words, you just might be on your way to the kind of ending that grabs hold of readers and refuses to let them go.

Tell me your opinion: What’s your favorite closing line and why?

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K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Truth be told, I don’t actually remember my favorite last line off the top of my head, but I can tell you that my favorite endings in general (that I can think of anyway), came from Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins and Across the Universe by Beth Revis.

    I read somewhere that the first line convinces your readers to buy your book and the last line convinces your readers to buy your next book. I think there’s a lot of truth to that. If you can’t stand the way the book ended, chances are you’re not going to buy the next one.

    First and last lines are both extremely important. We definitely need to take the time to get them right.

  2. After finally reading – and loving – Collins’s The Hunger Games, I’m eager to readi Mockingjay. It’s vital for a book to suck us in from the first line and satisfy us at the last. That’s no easy orderfor authors, but when we fulfill it, it’s always worth it.

  3. This is a very helpful examination of what it takes for a satisfying ending. I sometimes have trouble crafting an ending that gets at a couple of these points let alone all five. Thanks!

  4. Endings are just as tough as beginnings – tougher in some ways. Don’t be afraid to rewrite them as many times as necessary until you get all the facets just right.

  5. In his 1977 thriller, The Chancellor Manuscript, Robert Ludlum ends the book with the same few paragraphs as the beginning and cleverly suggests to the reader that everything in between was true.
    Finnegan’s Wake, by James Joyce, begins with a sentence fragment. The last sentence of the book, cut off in midstream, completes it. The use of the word ‘recirculation’ in the opening piece takes on new meaning as the book explores the life cycle in a roundabout, dreamlike way, hinting that the end is the beginning.
    If there is a name for this technique KM I would love to know it, Thanks!

  6. I’ve seen too many romantic ending lines… and being a bachelor, it can get a bit boring after a while.

    I think my personal favorite ending line is one that pretty much states “and he went back home to his job/family/life.”

  7. @Kevin: I’m a big fan of framed endings like that. One of my favorites is in the recent movie adaptation of Peter Pan, which opens with a line of text on the screen and closes with the same line as a voiceover narrative.

    @Gideon: Do you remember what. book it was from?

  8. One closing line that stayed with me was the ending of The Good Earth.

  9. Ooh, The Good Earth is a classic. But, you know, I can’t remember the final line. I’ll have to go back and look it up sometime.

  10. I like endings that leave you thinking for a while, personally. Ones that suggest something greater than just a summation of the story you’ve been telling. For example, throwing in another element that has the potential the change everything you just read. But that’s just me. There are many other kinds of endings I like, too. You had some good tips here. A lot of people (myself included) often struggle with the proper closing lines. Thanks for the post. =)

  11. Hmmm. I’m certain I’ve read many outstanding endings, but can’t think of a single, solitary one right now. I will say this, I love writing endings and last lines. I’m very pleased with mine.
    An ending is every bit as important as a beginning, which is why, I suppose, I often read the end of a book first.

  12. @Nick: It depends on the story, but generally, I wouldn’t want a game changer thrown in at the last minute. But I do want endings that leave me with a sense of something larger, a sense of the story continuing,

    @Julia: Years ago, I used to read the last line of every book first. One too many spoilers broke me of that habit!

  13. The only closing line I remember off the top of my head is from A Parting Gift by Ben Erickson, in which the last paragraph is the same as the opening paragraph, making the reader believe the narrator of the book is also the author. Well done.

  14. So far, we seem to be getting a lot of votes for framed beginnings and endings. It’s a technique that could easily be overused, but I have to say I’m a fan of it as well, although I’ve yet to use it in my own writing.

  15. I can’t remember specific lines, but I do know I’ve had a few (numerous!) disappointments … thinking, “That it?” I think it’s even more important to have a good ending that a good opening line or paragraph.

  16. I agree. Writers slave over their openings so they can convince agents (and eventually readers) to pick up the book. But what good is a bravo beginning if the ending disappoints?

  17. Great post as always. My favorite closing line comes from one of my favorite books, Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank. “The engine started and Randy turned away to face the thousand-year night.” It showed that although we “won” WWIII there were no real winners and yet there was hope. It is the type of line that grabbed me as did the opening line. Ending yet beginning.

  18. Ooh, great line. Love the title too.

  19. I’ve read many books that have great endings, and others that made me scratch my head. One of my favorites is the last line from ” Eleven on Top” by Janet Evanovich. It’s simply, “Babe.”

    If you’ve read the book, it had a lot of resonance. Many of J.D. Robb’s books have killer endings. Probably my favorite is the second in her “In Death” series, and while I can’t repeat it, I can remember the essence of it–and many others in the series.

  20. I love a great closing line that sends shivers down your spine. I also seem to be incapable of writing a shiver-worthy closing line. Ah well.

    There’s one that always comes to mind when I think of closing lines. It’s from Andre Aciman’s Call Me By Your Name:

    “If you remember everything, I wanted to say, and if you are really like me, then before you leave tomorrow, or when you’re just ready to shut the door of the taxi and have already said goodbye to everyone else and there’s not a thing left to say in this life, then, just this once, turn to me, even in jest or as an afterthought, which would have meant everything to me when we were together, and, as you did back then, look me in the face, hold my gaze, and call me by your name.”

  21. K.M., I was referring to a generic story ending. Sometimes the authors use more flowery sentences..
    I can’t remember any book that uses that line off the top of my head.

  22. @Liberty: I’m not generally a big fan of mysteries, but I’ve been meaning to check out Evanovich for some time now.

    @Leah: Beautiful. I love insistent, urgent, lengthy sentences like that, no matter where they are in the book.

    @Gideon: I see. Gotcha.

  23. oh, yes. These are super great tips, and they make so much sense. I’ve never really sat and analyzed what makes a great ending, but you’ve nailed it. The theme, pacing, life goes on…. these are all the important factors. Thanks again, KM~ :o)

  24. Endings can be tricky. Mine inevitably get rewritten several times no matter how much planning I do ahead of time. But the extra work is always worth the trouble if it means a satisfied reader!

  25. @K.M… Do it! Especially before the movie comes out in January. I highly recommend reading them in order, but it’s not a requirement. 🙂 Don’t worry (too much) about the between-the-numbers books. They don’t factor in terribly much to the ongoing stories/relationships. And, they’re really more comedy than mystery… though usually something has to be solved. It’s a light mystery… even when there are dead bodies. 🙂

  26. I’ve got to get through my huge TBR pile first, but I’ll grab Evanovich on my next trip to the library!

  27. Yes! A last line should resonate long after you close the book. The ones you’ve posted here are just marvelous, and they have the effect, for me, of making me want to read the first lines!

  28. Great point! If a last line can make us want to go back and reread the whole thing right then and there, an author (or a reader) can’t ask for more.

  29. My favourite closing line is absolutely the closing line of ‘Pigeon English’ by Stephen Kelman. I’m not going to quote it, because it’s like a punch in the stomach at the end of the book. It ticks all the boxes you mention in your post, and made my hairs stand up. You’ll just have to read it!

  30. I guess I will! Thanks for the recommendation.

  31. Anonymous says:

    Are you guys kidding?? None of you have mentioned one of the greatest closing lines of all times. “Tomorrow is another day!” GWTW. Nuff said?

  32. Always a classic!

  33. M.L. Bull says:

    Thank you for this post! It seems that my closing line should be “continuation” since my novel ‘Wisdom’ is a part of a book series. I’ve been trying to come up with the right closing line, something that will connect to the upcoming summer in ‘Mercy’ book 2.

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